October 20, 2017

Life, Library, and the Pursuit of Happiness

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Credit: Hemera/Thinkstock

What is happiness? What makes us happy? Do libraries have the capacity to deliver a happy experience to those who use them? All good questions. The answers are elusive, but thanks to a body of research on happiness accumulated over the past quarter century we are better able to answer those questions. Librarians are increasingly expressing an interest in the design of experiences that improve how community members interact with the full range of service, resources, and staff. Think of it as the “totality” of all that the library has to offer as an experience, not just the usability of the catalog, the cleanliness of the restrooms, or the smiles on staff faces at service points. Each, no doubt, is important to the overall experience. Great library experiences are delivered at every touch point where community members connect with the library.

New discoveries about happiness may inform how we choose to design library experiences that deliver it. The idea of a happy library experience may sound superficial, but the research points to the value that librarians would derive from being far more intentional about designing an experience that aims to deliver happiness. When our community members experience happiness they, in turn, are more engaged with their communities, contribute to community betterment, and make good citizens who care about their neighbors. Our libraries could build better communities populated by people who derive greater happiness, not from exotic objects and experiences that few of us can obtain, but rather the simple, everyday learning, reading, and exploring that libraries are uniquely qualified to deliver. It’s up to librarians to make sure the pieces are in place to fulfill that vision.

Happiness as an Entitlement

Prior to the 18th century there is scant recorded knowledge that documents examples of people experiencing happiness. Happiness historians point to the dawn of the 18th century enlightenment as the time when humans came to believe that the pursuit of happiness was a basic freedom to which all were entitled.

Fast-forward to the 20th century, where visible signs suggest that happiness is becoming culturally significant. The first known self-help books on achieving happiness emerge in the 1920s. Advances in dental care have more people smiling to express and signal happiness. The 1950s introduce a new era in which happiness is corporatized. Disneyland opens as a destination dedicated to the achievement of familial happiness. Industry co-opts happiness as a device to sell its wares, especially those that do us more harm than good. Advertisers depict the consumption of tobacco, alcohol, and even lard as products that deliver happiness. Despite a growing presence of references to happiness in everyday life, little is known about what happiness really is or what truly makes people happy. In the 1960s, social scientists begin seeking the answers to these questions and happiness becomes a rich field for research.

How to Buy Happiness

Dan Gilbert, Harvard faculty member and happiness researcher, shares the findings of his extensive research in popular videos. When Gilbert does man-in-the-street interviews, most people claim that money doesn’t buy happiness, but his research on thousands of subjects reveals just the opposite. As Gilbert says “There is no point at which getting richer make you sadder. Each dollar buys more happiness.” However, happiness research also tells us that memorable experiences produce longer-term happiness than material objects. If you want to spend your money to acquire some happiness, try buying coffee for the person in line behind you; acts of generosity give it a boost. (And yes, when it comes to happiness, people prefer sex over work.)

Two findings from Gilbert’s research speak to why happiness may be a perfect fit as a library experience. First, we derive greater happiness from multiple small joys than we do from single, one-time “wow” experiences. That speaks to the value of everyday, simple pleasures such as walks, reading, and acts of kindness or just basking in the sunshine. Second, in social situations people prefer to hear about and discuss those everyday, more mundane, experiences rather than the exotic, more costly ones. Like to brag about your latest trip to the French Riviera or your new luxury car? Don’t be surprised if friends or coworkers try to change the subject quickly. Those more common experiences in which we can all partake and share are of far more interest to us in social conversation.

Design the Library Happiness Experience

To my way of thinking that positions what librarians do for their communities as exactly the type of experience that resonates with every person. Whether borrowing a book, getting job research assistance, enjoying a distraction-free study space, viewing classic hard-to-find films, listening to favorite childhood stories, attending author lectures, accessing computers and the Internet, or receiving more complex research support, every community member can experience all the amazing things we offer in our libraries every day. No Internet business or strip mall coffeehouse can offer the range of experiences—the type that people enjoy sharing and hearing about much more than the fabulous ones they can’t have—that every library can deliver.

Is it possible to be intentional in choosing happiness as a theme around which to design a library experience? According to the Pew Research Center, the library might offer a great foundation for a happiness experience. Pew studies indicate a significant crossover between the traits of library users and the traits of those who demonstrate high levels of personal happiness. While no direct causal connection exists between using libraries and increased happiness, people who frequent libraries are more engaged with their communities, have good relationships with neighbors, and contribute to the betterment of the community. Knowing there is a relationship between using a library and leading a happier life, librarians should seek to leverage happiness as a branded library experience.

Branding the Library as Happy Place

That’s exactly what the librarians at Texas A&M University did. At the Association of College & Research Libraries 2015 conference, Kathy Anders and colleagues presented a poster on their Happy Library Outreach Project. Using happiness as a theme, the librarians planned an entire year of events to promote the library as a place of happiness. How to launch the theme and outreach program? With a “Happy” video featuring three student dance troupes that highlights library workers and services—all set to the song “Happy”.

At freshman orientation, students watched the video and met library staff members. A library open house featured games designed to promote services and library benefits. Events throughout the academic year emphasized a participatory culture that brought library staff and community members together to discover happiness in the library. To further reinforce the experience, all staff members wore a “happy” t-shirt with the Texas A&M Libraries logo, and gave them away to students at happy-themed events. What made a difference? Being intentional about the design of the library experience. Staff focused on how they want the community members to feel about the library, and the happiness theme defined what that feeling is.

A Holistic Experience

It is far-fetched to imagine promoting your library as a community place where happiness happens? Leveraging what we know about happiness and how people find it plays well to every library’s strength. If we believe the Pew research then we may already be on the path to designing an experience that capitalizes on the library as a place that contributes to the well-being of citizens and advancement of community happiness. It may help to begin by exploring how user experiences are the product of intentional design. As more libraries of all types are adding user experience specialists and units, the idea of designing a better library experience moves beyond website usability or satisfaction assessment. Those activities are important, but more librarians now see that what counts is the totality of the library experience.

If you think of the library experience as the sum of all those touch points where community members engage with one or more parts of the whole, then the library experience is more than what happens on the website or other single interaction point. To achieve totality, the same experience—ideally one that is memorable, differentiated, and capable of producing loyalty—is delivered at the threshold of the facility, at the service desk, on the phone, in the stacks, and anywhere else a community member interacts with the library. That kind of experience never happens randomly. It is always the product of forethought and an intentionally well-designed environment.

Experience is the Product

At its core a library experience is about the way the library workers want community members to feel when engaging with them and their library. How do we want them to experience it, to describe it? The possibilities are many. Library experiences can be designed around play, scholarship, relationships, exclusivity, or even passion, but why not make it about happiness? One way to think about it is from the perspective of the library product. George Eastman, inventor of the one-button camera that simplified and democratized photography, realized that his “you push the button and we do the rest” creation was about more than technology. Its vast success was owing to the experience it delivered, enabling its owner to record and share life events and derive happiness from the memories the photos captured. Eastman declared that the experience was the product.

What is the library’s product? To my way of thinking it’s not books, or content of any kind. It’s not the technology. It’s not the building. It’s the people, the library workers and those things they do every day to create happiness in their communities. Library workers are uniquely positioned to create an experience found nowhere else.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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